Star Phoenix – Doug Cuthand

File photo of Regina student Michael Gervais wafting smoke from sweetgrass, sage and cedar from Rick Favel, an Elder's helper from the Kawawkatoose First Nation, as part of a purification ceremony.File photo of Regina student Michael Gervais wafting smoke from sweetgrass, sage and cedar from Rick Favel, an Elder’s helper from the Kawawkatoose First Nation, as part of a purification ceremony


Many Indigenous people greet the new day by taking a braid of sweetgrass and lighting the end on fire, blowing out the flame and letting the sweet smoke waft over their head and shoulders. This ceremony is called smudging, and it purifies both the mind and body and sets the tone for the day.

Indigenous people across North America practise such a ceremony with regional variations. Some use sweetgrass, others use sage or cedar. In all cases it’s an important ceremony of peace and purification.

However, Candice Servatius of Port Alberni, B.C., saw it otherwise. When the local elementary school conducted a smudging ceremony in the local Nuu-chah-nulth tradition, she took the school district to court.

The principal had sent a letter to parents of her students informing them the ceremony would take place as a way of learning about the traditions of the local First Nations people. When Servatius went to complain to the principal she was told that the ceremony had already occurred, so she took legal action. The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms filed the petition on her behalf in the British Columbia Supreme Court.

Servatius is complaining that the school district violated her children’s right to religious freedom; she cites the B.C. School Act, which prohibits religion in the classroom, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The school district maintains that it was a cultural ceremony, not a religious event, and any student’s participation was optional.

So the case continues through the various steps in B.C.’s justice system.

It’s an interesting case. How do you draw the line between cultural practice and religious observance? Practices such as meditation and yoga have a cultural basis, but are they religious?

Does the issue of race relations play a role here? The Nuu-chah-nulth elders who conducted the ceremony were merely trying to educate the young people about their cultural practices. Servatius stated in a letter to the school district that she had no issue with her children learning about other cultures. The concern appears to be the wider issue about allowing religion of any kind in the public school system.

However, if any group should know about the damage religion can bring to a community it should be Indigenous people, who have only to point to the residential school experience. Children who were placed in these schools had religion shoved down their throats 24 hours a day. Traditional aboriginal practices were called pagan, and even speaking our own language was forbidden.

In his book, Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream, New Democrat MP Charlie Angus describes the history of the boarding schools in Northern Ontario. I suspect it was much the same across Canada.

When the federal government wanted a new boarding school, it would put out a call for proposals and various religious denominations would bid on them. There was no input from the local community; the decision was between the government and the church. The low bid would win, and the quality of education and students’ living conditions would reflect that.

The church that won would subsequently have control of a whole community. The children would be gathered and sent away to the school. There would be no discussion as to whether they chose that particular religion. For many years reserve communities have had only one Christian denomination.

But this practice couldn’t be sustained. People across Indian Country have turned their back on all forms of Christianity and returned to their traditional religion. Churches sit empty and abandoned on some reserves today.

The B.C. court challenge continues. I hope that people see smudging is part of First Nations culture; it clears the head, brings a sense of calm and prepares one for the new day.

But the issue of teaching religion in schools must be addressed. Should schools allow expressions of different faiths? What is the difference between learning and respecting other religions and having it forced? It’s a difficult issue for the courts, but we need some guidelines.